A cool breeze catches the nylon fabric stretched over the 9 foot frame and lifts the kite skyward. This particular kite strains under the additional extra ounces of a FujiFilm FinePix XP80 camera mounted to a picavet rig attached to the kite string. The specialized payload contains a programmed intervalometer which will trigger the shutter every 15 seconds. As the kite is guided around the landscape, it will capture images of the distribution of various plants over the heterogeneous savannah. Drones aren’t allowed here, but we managed special permission to trial kite aerial photography. Coupled with direct observations of feeding giraffes on the same landscape, this birds-eye view can be used to inform our understanding of how giraffes make foraging decisions in heterogeneous browsing landscapes. The distribution of large browsing herbivores is influenced by the distribution of woody vegetation which is influenced by soil nutrients which is influence by distribution and abundance of arthropods, which are in turn somewhat influenced by the distribution of browsing herbivores. Sometimes a different perspective can offer new insights into the processes that give rise to emergent patterns in nature.
I forgot how much I missed salt water. I hadn’t touched the Atlantic Ocean in over two years, and it’s been nearly 5 years since I visited my natal shores on the New Jersey barrier islands. While the sandy beaches, rolling surf, and east coast moonrises rightfully get a fair bit of attention by weekend vacationers, boardwalk cruisers, tanned retirees, and high school summer employees, I love the to chase the tides upstream into the salt marshes.
In the home of the terrapins there’s a relative quietness away from the crashing waves, but soon the gentle lapping of the incoming tides, the song of the redwing blackbird, and the chirp of the osprey provide a different welcoming soundscape. It does not take long to realize why and how these ecosystems are among the most productive on the planet. Saltwater adapted grasses and rich organic silt support incredible diversity and provide critical ecosystem service to those living on the mainland. The life sustained by salt marshes cascades into to other ecosystems from the waterfowl that span continents to the fish that span oceans.
I find it incredible how one animal can mean so much to so many. Upon close consideration – and my profession affords me time for considerable consideration (perhaps too much consideration) – I am endlessly fascinated by the role that giraffe play in ecosystems and culture.
For the lioness, a giraffe may represent the opportunity to feed the next generation of her pride who lay hungry in the shade of a nearby Balanites aegyptica...
For the Acacia senegal tree, giraffe may serve as unexpected but critical pollinator, transferring pollen long distances between foraging bouts and maintaining the genetic diversity of tree species....
For the dung beetle, giraffe provide the raw materials to build a brooding ball to nourish the next generation. For an uncle at a giraffe feeding exhibit at the local zoo, giraffe can represent a shared moment of wonder with his new nephew as they watch that marvelous tongue hoover a lettuce leaf. For an infant in Paris, France, a small rubber giraffe can be a soothing plaything to ease the discomforts of teething.
For the elder woman in a community adjacent to Pian Upe Game Reserve in Uganda, giraffe can represent a sense of ecological hope and resilience. As she showed incredible strength to endure years of civil unrest, she also watched as that same conflict decimated the giraffe populations around her community in the mid 1990’s. Through scientifically informed conservation action and dedicated international collaborations, giraffe were reintroduced to the landscape in 2019 and she sang to welcome them back home. These animals served not only as a critical component of this ecosystem but also as a culturally significant totem to neighboring communities.
We share the world with such beautiful beings. Today, especially, I encourage you to reflect on the evolutionary marvel of the giraffe, as individuals and as members of vibrant ecosystems. And while your attention is there, I encourage you stay in that moment of beauty and reflect on the poetry of perhaps less iconic organism somewhere in your local surroundings. What does sharing space with that organism mean to you? Let giraffe be a gateway to wonder.
For these plains zebra in Ngorongoro, safety is found in numbers, clear visibility, and open landscapes. In the amazingly rich ecosystems of the crater’s plains and savannahs, predator and prey can often be seen in uneasy (at least for the zebra) proximity. The wary equids spend daylight hours taking advantage of the grass growing in the fertile volcanic soil, grazing in relative safety. I suspect it is a dramatically different scenario in the darkness.
Prior to the days of quality cell-phone cameras, I would keep a rugged point-and-shoot camera as a side-arm in a pouch on my belt. During this particular shot, the lions passed so close to the Landcruiser that I wanted a wider-angle perspective, so I put down the telephoto lens and reached to my hip for my reliable Nikon Coolpix for this shot.
I find antlers incredibly beautiful and endlessly fascinating. Beyond the elegant curves of ivory and mahogany colored bone, these uniquely cervid protruberances are incredibly diverse in form but remarkably simple in function. Most classically, antlers are essential for combat and conquest during a very short period during the breeding season. The amount of energy and nutrients that contribute to the growth of this deciduous bone is astounding, with some moose antlers exceeding 70 pounds in weight requiring immense investment from their wearer. After the violence of the rut (at least in most temperate cervids), these bones have mostly served their purpose and room must be made for the next year’s headgear. Eventually, the bone is severed by the ebb in sex hormones, and these adornments are unceremoniously shed into quiet snowbanks to be eroded by time or a fortunate porcupine. After the thaw and as the spring flowers begin to blossom, the cycle begins again, and the velvety bone regenerates, oftentimes bigger and more robust than the previous year. A cleverer man might find a powerful metaphor in that process.
Dall sheep usually don’t live in ugly places. Denali National Park is certainly not an exception to this rule. Those who spend time in Denali experience nature at an incomprehensively large scale. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel small in a good way. And Dall sheep always have the best views.
Like most who summit Uhuru Peak, we began our final ascent in darkness. The night before was cold, and we were underequipped with poorly rated sleeping bags, so we zipped three of them together and huddled inside to ward off the alpine chill. We came to Tanzania a few months earlier without the intent of climbing Kilimanjaro, so our gear was a mismatch of whatever we could find at local markets or borrow from the outfitter. After a few restless hours trying to chase sleep, we put fresh batteries in our headlamps and walked upward into the darkness. It’s certainly not a technical climb – I summited in Chuck Taylors with plastic bag booties on the inside – but the altitude made it a challenge as we searched for breath every few steps. As we reached the wooden sign signifying the highest point in Africa, we turned to watch the sunrise over the volcanic rim. All sensation of exhaustion evaporated as the sunlight painted the summit. We shared a beer – a Kilimanjaro Lager of course – which even when divided among several friends had an altitude enhanced effect. We then made our descent. The trek up the mountain took us six days, but the descent only took one and half. Without the need for acclimatizing to altitude, we turned our potential energy into kinetic energy and moved as quickly as our legs would take us. This pace afforded such a visceral perspective on the elevational patterns in biodiversity. In the span of a few hours we descended through at least 6 different ecosystems, each comprised of species most suited to the microclimates of a given elevation. I began the day on a glacier and ended it shirtless in forest with colobus monkeys in the canopy above. That’s one of the most beautiful parts of tropical mountains
Few animals have taught me more than the whitetail deer.
Growing up in the woods of Pennsylvania, tracking deer was a pastime that kept me grounded and connected to my natal environment. Deer taught me to read the forest and gave me a fluency in a language I desperately wanted to learn. They were always there, always accessible to the interested, and yet they were always wild. Walking barefoot through the hemlock groves to catch a glimpse of these cervids in the conifers was an act of meditation. Their transformations through the seasons taught me about ecological time, from the red-coated evenings of late spring grazing on clover to the electrifying crispness of an early November morning watching an old buck break the tree line into a lightly snow dusted cut cornfield. Summer nights were spent cruising dirt roads and counting deer and nearby fields. In high school, I skipped my junior prom and instead went spotlighting in the Endless Mountain region of Pennsylvania. I've yet to read a single peer-reviewed study on whitetail deer and I've never once empirically evaluated any deer data but yet I feel as though I understand deer more than most. This pure, informal study of animal behavior kindled the passions that have led to a career in ecology and conservation.
Throughout my life deer have sustained me in many ways, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that during this pandemic quarantine I came to rely on deer once again. Isolated in rural log cabin on the outskirts of Shenandoah National Park, my regular patterns of field work in remote areas of Africa were abruptly halted with the spreading virus. As someone who finds inspiration in motion, the prospect of months of stationary seclusion in the States admittedly didn’t jibe with my personal or professional plans. But this period of time has afforded a precious opportunity to develop a more indigenous intimacy of my local surroundings. It began rather unexpectedly in early April, as I heard the distress calls of young fawn caught in the fence of a nearby cow pasture. As I extricated this deer from the wire and watched it clumsily plod down the stream, I experienced one of my first pure moments of joy and hope in this pandemic. Over the next few months I watched as its white speckled pelage faded into the muddied grey of its adolescent autumn coat. I watched in reverent silence as it bedded behind my compost head and unabashedly rooted for it as it – along with its mother- fled a pursuing black bear. These near daily interactions with my deer neighbors have given me such a valuable respite from the almost inevitable call of the screen. In this moment, especially as I live alone, it is very easy to immerse myself in work to give myself a sense of control. These deer have given me an incredible gift in reminding me of what initially drew me to this field. I watch them without agenda. I watch them for only the joy of knowing that I share this space with such beautiful beings. I see them every day and I will never tire of it.
Earlier this week, a hybiscus bush blossomed in my side yard bringing with it the ruby-throated hummingbird seeking its nectar. The window beyond my computer monitor overlooks these purple blossoms and the delightful buzzing of these little birds has offered a minor respite for this temporarily desk-bound field ecologist. Selfishly perhaps, I subsequently bought a hummingbird feeder and placed it directly above the rocking chair on my front porch. In these strange times, it's amazing how a simple plastic feeder filled with red colored, vitamin enriched sugar water could bring me such joy.
Beyond my temporary digs in northern Virginia, the diversity of hummingbirds has recently astounded me. Growing up in the northeastern United States, hummingbirds were an infrequent but always discernible treat. If I saw a hummingbird, I knew it to be a ruby-throated one. Although I've read of their diversity, it wasn't until I traveled to the neotropics where I became enamored with the beautiful diversity of the hundreds of species in the family Trochilidae.
Hummingbirds are unique the the Americas and the Caribbean. Indeed the Eastern hemisphere has its own nectar-feeding birds but they are not hummingbirds. Sunbirds are no doubt beautiful convergently evolved counterparts to the familiar hummingbirds, but they lack incredible flight behavior of these frenetic feeders. Hummingbirds are an evolutionary product of new world ecology.
I took this photo in the cloud forests of Monte Verde in Costa Rica, while teaching a field course. These hummingbirds dodged the relentless raindrops as they flit between their floral quarry.